Indian River School District makes new referendum pitch

GEORGETOWN — Maybe it hasn’t reached the now-or-never stage.
Nonetheless, Indian River School District Superintendent Mark Steele says now is the time for the board of education and district to move forward and secure referendum passage for a new Sussex Central High School — which, through a domino effect, would address some space and capacity challenges at the district’s middle and elementary school levels.

The school board at its Oct. 28 meeting voted 9-0 to proceed, eyeing a February 2020 referendum that would be the third attempt in about a one-year span. A follow-up referendum could be held in May, if the one planned for February meets defeat.

“If we move forward, we have to pass this referendum,” said Mr. Steele. “We have to pass this referendum this (fiscal) year or there is a very good possibility that we won’t have a CN (certificate of Necessity) on the table next year.”

Meanwhile, IRSD recently received Delaware Department of Education’s final certificate of necessity approval for a separate major capital construction project — a new Howard T. Ennis School. That $49.8 million project is 100-percent state funded and does not require approval through public referendum vote. The new Ennis School will be built on land across from the Sussex Central High School campus.

In February and May 2019, voters defeated referendums seeking a new 2,200-student high school and classroom additions at Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School.

The new high school — the current SCHS building is several hundred students over capacity — was granted a Certificate of Necessity required in the referendum process, along with funding approval by the General Assembly through the bond bill.
CN requests seeking additional rooms at Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School were rejected by the DOE.

The high school major capital project calls for bond-backed $146,094,000 project, supported by $87,656,300 in state funding and a local share of $58,437,700.

In weighing the request, DOE considered the number of pupils, actual or potential in the school district, feasibility and possibility of the consolidation of such school district with other districts, the present and future possibility of overcrowding the school facilities with the school district.

“Indian River received CNs for a new Sussex Central High School, which will allow the district to use the existing building as a middle school and alleviate overcrowding at both the middle and high school levels,” said DOE spokeswoman Alison May.

“The state obviously feels the same way, or they wouldn’t have approved this again,” said IRSD board member Jim Fritz.
“They recognized the growth that we have, and they looked at the projections. It is very evident that we have the students, and we have to have the space,” said Mr. Steele.

Board member Dr. Donald Hattier said the district must move forward. “I agree. We’ve already lost a year and half or two years,” he said.
As Mr. Steele has predicted, IRSD’s overall enrollment as of the unit-determining Sept. 30 student count topped 11,000 overall.

Enrollment growth is not expected to subside.
“Over the next three years in the progression model we are going increase about 500 to 600 students, probably closer to 600. We’re going to see another substantial growth next year about 260, followed by two years with about 180 kids each. That is not counting any growth to our area. That is simply moving the kids through who are currently in our system,” said Mr. Steele.

As a temporary solution, IRSD has brought modular classroom trailers to the Sussex Central campus. The IRSD received two single modular units donated by Cape Henlopen district.

Those units obtained through the state are on a long-term lease that is expensive (approximately $140,000 per unit over a five-year lease) and funded through operational funds. Additionally, the district plans to spend about $27,000 in fencing for security for the modular at Sussex Central.

Mr. Steele reminded the board of all the new development occurring or in planning stages within the district, including large-scale residential projects in Georgetown and Millsboro areas.

“You ride all around, and you see all the building,” said Mr. Steele. “Can we tell everybody exactly how many kids we’re going to have? No. But I can tell you with all the new building and approvals that are going through the county we are going to see an increase for a longtime to com.”

Mr. Steele said another option would be to hold off another year on pursuing a referendum, which would require CN approval.
“My recommendation at this point is we have to move forward and we have to do everything we can do to pass this referendum,” said Mr. Steele.

“The growth I was just talking about, the vast majority of those kids are going to be in the high schools.”
“We are going to really need to do everything we can on our end, get out to the community, share the importance of the space that we need and the amount of money that we can spend this year on trailers and portable classrooms and all the things that go along with portable classrooms. We’re going to be spending an awful lot of operating money over the next couple years,” Mr. Steele said. “We’re going to do that anyway over about the next three, but we really have to move forward here or we going to lose a couple years. We’ve got to go forward and take the chance.”

Mr. Steele reminded the board that with referendum passage it’s “you’re not getting one school and done. We’re getting one school that is going to enable us to have much more room at the middle school and an extra elementary. So, the school in the north end of the district, is going to alleviate our problems for a little while.”

At the Oct. 27 board meeting, J.R. Emanuele, president of the Indian River Education Association, pledged the association’s support in gaining voter approval in the upcoming referendum. He added if the district, board and IREA work together as a team from the start it would stand a much better chance of passing. The last referendum on May 7 was defeated by only 65 votes.

While Indian River met a second referendum defeat in May, Woodbridge School District was successful in its second attempt with passage of a current expense referendum.
That May 29 referendum passed 1,313 to 1,042 to provide an additional $950,000 annually in current expense funding for operating costs for the district’s four schools.

CN verdicts
Indian River and Appoquinimink were awarded CNs based on district growth.

DOE also approved CNs for several acutely-needed renovations including: roof replacement at Seaford’s Central Elementary; roof and mechanical replacement at Smyrna’s North Smyrna Elementary; and replacement of the mechanical and electrical systems at Christina’s Christina Early Childhood Center as well as replacement of HVAC systems at Christina’s Marshall and Leasure elementary schools.

Sussex Tech’s CN request for a new school was among those rejected.

The district had submitted a major capital improvement request for a $150.5 million school to replace the current school which was built in the 1960s and is experiencing maintenance and structural issues.
“Due to budget limitations, the department was unable to include other large projects in the FY21 budget request,” said Ms. May.

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